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Southern Art/Wider World is a digital humanities project that empowers dialogue about the historical and cultural themes present in WAMA’s collection and the Southern land. Made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Also supported in part by the Mississippi Humanities Council, and in partnership with the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi.

In this lesson, author LeAnne Howe explores the intersections of indigenous traditions and American history, illuminated through visual art and literature.

LEANNE HOWE, Eidson Distinguished Professor at the University of Georgia, connects literature, Indigenous knowledge, Native histories, and expressive cultures in her work. Her interests include Native and indigenous literatures, performance studies, film, and Indigeneity.

 

Howe (Choctaw) is the recipient of a United States Artists (USA) Ford Fellow, Lifetime Achievement Award by the Native Writers’ Circle of the Americas, American Book Award, Oklahoma Book Award, and she was a Fulbright Distinguished Scholar to Jordan. Recently in October 2015, Howe received the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western Literature Association, (WLA); and in 2014 she received the Modern Languages Association inaugural Prize for Studies in Native American Literatures, Cultures, and Languages for Choctalking on Other Realities. She received an MFA from Vermont College of Norwich University, (2000) and shares a Native and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) award for literary criticism with eleven other scholars for Reasoning Together: The Native Critics Collective, named one of the ten most influential books of the first decade of the twenty-first century for indigenous scholarship, 2011. She’s lectured nationally and internationally giving the Richard Hoggart Series lecture at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK, 2011, and the Keynes Lecture at the University of Kent, Canterbury, UK, 2013, among others. In 1993 she lectured throughout Japan as an American Indian representative during the United Nations “International Year of Indigenous People.”

Her books include, Shell Shaker, 2001, Evidence of Red, 2005, Miko Kings: An Indian Baseball Story, 2007, Choctalking on Other Realities, 2013. She co-edited a book of essays on Native films with Harvey Markowitz, and Denise K. Cummings titled, Seeing Red, Pixeled Skins: American Indians and Film, 2013. A special issue of Studies of American Indian Literature, SAIL, Vol. 26, Number 2, Summer 2014, is an exploration by six scholars on Howe's literary concept of Tribalography.

Setting the stage for the discussion, LeAnne Howe underscores the "invisibility" of many indigenous histories in the context of the North American landscape.

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TRANSCRIPT: So much of Choctawan culture over the centuries, over time, is invisible to mainstream people. So we’re talking about a very long, deep ecological history of people in the Lower Mississippi Valley. So when we’re removed in 1830, what we tried to do was re-represent ourselves in water, air, earth. 

IN TUNE WITH THE COSMOS

Walter Inglis Anderson (Designer and Decorator), Peter Anderson (Caster), Sea, Earth, Sky Vase, c. 1945. Ceramic. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Maples. Gift dedicated to their daughter, Frances Wynn Maples. 

"After you have lived on the island for a while, there comes a time when you realize that the pelican holds everything for you. It has the song of the thrush, the form and understanding of man, the tenderness and gentleness of the dove, the mystery and dynamic quality of the nightjar, and the potential qualities of all life." 
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Walter Anderson believed in nature as a portal to other realities and understandings. And he was influenced heavily by philosophical traditions and artistic aesthetics from across time, including by "indigenous ways of knowing" that honored the natural world as the preeminent source of understanding. In works such as Sea, Earth, Sky, Anderson is acknowledging both the visual motifs of native peoples, as well as cultural conceptions of a layered universe composed of multiple levels of existence.

While Anderson is often compared to the transcendentalists such as Emerson and Thoreau, his beliefs were akin to more ancient and experiential methods. Just as many native tribes on the North American continent viewed animals as humanity's equals, some of Anderson's closest relationships were not those he shared with people, but with the creatures – like the pelicans – that he encountered on the barrier islands near his home.

WAMA Curator Mattie Codling take us "into the vault" for a closer look at Anderson's depictions of sea, earth, and sky.

LeAnne Howe connects the aesthetics in Walter Anderson's art to the architecture of universe, as understood by native peoples.

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TRANSCRIPT: I think there is something more special going on in Anderson’s project because he banded it the way in which indigenous people thought about the sky people, the middle people, and the lower people – which are fish, underwater people (our relatives as well, which is why we have alligator dance and alligator power). To my mind, when I look at this piece, I think he is adapting to the kind of cultural lifeways that we also expressed in our artwork. So, they’re not unknown to each other, even across these millennia. That, to me, says that he was tapping into the power that’s all around us as we live and nurture this land. He himself was caught up and became in tune with the cosmos. 

EVER-PRESENT PAST

Walter Inglis Anderson

“The past is never dead. It's not even past.”  
– WILLIAM FAULKNER

When Walter Anderson looked at the stars, he saw himself in concert a thousand years of nomads and adventurers, guided by the constellations. When he traveled to France after college in the late 1920s, he was pulled as if by some primordial magnetism to the caves at Les Eyzies, where he gazed upon the 17,000 year old paintings made by early "primitive" artists. It was these simple forms, and the purity of ancient self-expression, that would influence Anderson's art making for decades to come. Whereas he began his journey as an artist trained in academia, he emerged with a deeper understanding of his place in a much larger and longer context of human civilization. His use of pattern and line in decorative arts, murals, illustrations, and block prints wold continue to reference cultures and peoples that, though distant, were ever-present in his imagination.

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Walter Inglis Anderson

LeAnne Howe speaks about how the past remains an influential and mysterious force in the lives of artists.

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TRANSCRIPT: And I don’t think of the past as something that happened before. I think it’s ongoing. And that’s the way it works through my work. I mean we have another Southerner who says very much the same thing, and that’s Faulkner, who also is another writer from the Lower Mississippi Valley. Because I don’t think the past is past. Because I don’t think the past is past. I think it exists alongside the future and it exists alongside the present. So we are also made up of these three realities that are working through us at all times. And that’s why I think that, for people who are in touch, and want to be in touch with the mystery, you’re able to understand who has come before and who will come after you. It’s a beautiful way to stand in relation with the universe. I know that that’s something that my community is very strong in, in looking at the past, but I also think it’s very much a part of Anderson’s work. He is living in the past as in the present and in the future at the same time. And we see something like that in William Faulkner’s work, and telling the story of so many things that had come before. But we’re living in these bands, and sometimes sliding back and forth. That’s the nature of inspiration, and it’s also the mystery.

WORLDS COLLIDE

Walter Inglis Anderson, Landing of d'Iberville, from the Ocean Springs Community Center Murals, c. 1951-52. Collection of the City of Ocean Springs.

Walter Anderson's Ocean Springs Community Center murals chronicle the history and dynamism of his hometown and region. Portions of the walls are dedicated to recording the landing of the French in Ocean Springs in1699, and the native peoples with whom the explorers made contact. This French colonial history is well-documented and persistent locally and across the coast, along with the names of these French leaders (brothers Pierre Le Moyne d'Iberville and Jean-Baptist Le Moyne de Bienville). Through many cities and localities also bear names derived from indigenous tribal languages, there is a notable absence of native ancestry, owing to the forced removal of these tribes in the 19th century. During French occupation, many local tribes – such as the Biloxi and Choctaw – aided the French, who found themselves in a largely unfamiliar landscape.

Walter Inglis Anderson, The Biloxi, from the Ocean Springs Community Center Murals, c. 1951-52. Collection of the City of Ocean Springs.

LeAnne Howe explains the role of native peoples in helping the French explorers survive along the Gulf Coast.

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TRANSCRIPT: Bienville and the French come, as we all know, in 1699. And it’s his brother, d’Iberville, that is in charge. But he’s not here very long. D’Iberville gets sick and dies of yellow fever, and that leaves Jean-Baptiste Bienville in charge. Not only does he learn [Mobilian] and Choctaw. He goes to live in [Chickasawhay], and he stays there because he knows he needs the protection of a guardian tribe. Now, when most of us are taught this history, it’s that, ‘Well the French helped the Indians. And the French did this. The French did that.’ They didn’t like our corn, they didn’t like our food, but they grew it and cultivated it so they wouldn’t starve to death. In 1699, the two brothers set foot on what is now Ocean Springs, Mississippi, near Biloxi. This became France’s toe-hold in Louisiana. And I think that’s very important that people around the country understand that they were also being protected, being traded with, and fed by, Choctaw people. And this ritual of giving and reciprocity really is something that Bienville understood, because he could see that that’s the way that Choctaw society worked, was reciprocity. They were trying to learn from us how to live on this land, and they did. The power of native people across the Southeast, the Lower Mississippi Valley, is alive. And it acts on Southerners. They become more like us instead of us becoming just part of them. For instance, the language, the culture, the food, the land that they’re living on. They’re trying to learn to live in our world.

UNIVERSAL COMMUNICATION

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Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Sleeping Under the Stars, c.   . Pen and Ink. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

“To know that every movement you make is related to the movements of the pine trees in the wind…the orbit of a star or the spiral movement of the sun itself.”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Throughout his life, Walter Anderson was aware of the natural forces that shaped his existence. Whether it be the fury of a hurricane or the subtle urgings of the shifting winds, the artist willingly submitted himself to the patterns of the natural world. Through his art, he sought what he called "realizations," moments of transcendent understanding between human and nature.

LeAnne Howe on artists as "prophets of understanding."

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TRANSCRIPT: I think what he was doing is something that we did, and something that our ancestors did, was the be in touch with the earth and sky, and those things contained herein. All of these things opened up to us when we opened ourselves up to the natural world. And I think that’s something that natives have done, I certainly think this is something that Walter Anderson was doing. But I also think it something artists teach us. We look today to our artists to be prophets of understanding the world around us. We get that through art now. But at other ancient times, everybody used this source of knowledge to be able to learn how to live with the land. What does the land want us to do?

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Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965), Little Room, North Wall. Given by Agnes Grinstead Anderson and her children.

Walter Anderson was fascinated with concepts of time – change of the seasons, of day to night, and movement across generations. The Little Room, the artist's private mural discovered after his death, chronicles a never-ending day in a synthesis of color and shape. Situated on the back of the chimney on the north wall of the mural is the River Goddess, a personification of the water's perpetual movement. Walter Anderson associated certain mystery with specific times of the day or year, such as the magic hour before sunset, "when all things are related..."

LeAnne Howe speaks about how human history and decision-making is also shaped by the rhythms of nature.

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TRANSCRIPT: All of these events, these major events, happen around the movement of the Earth. The Choctaws will not move until the Autumnal Equinox. That’s so important, and it’s missed if you don’t think of the way people thought about power. When the night and day are even, you have a chance to slip in and change the nature of the power dynamic. Those things happen, and continue to happen, around the Ides of March, the Autumnal Equinox. All of those earth-sky connections come into play. It’s a long historic memory of when we come together. And those kinds of things, I think, that Southerners do – and Mr. Anderson nis no different – they do it by nature. Because we’re all compelled by the same universe.

SHELL SHAKERS

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Walter Inglis Anderson, Turtle, c. 1940s. Block Print. Courtesy of the Family of Walter Anderson.

“The morning was beautiful with grey clouds and rainbows and a magnificent big purple brown and yellow turtle in the green water...”
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

While animals in Western culture are often objectified and commodified, Walter Anderson viewed them as animate beings whose lives were woven into the fabric of existence. He saw melody in their songs and narrative weight to the majesty of their movements. The creatures he encountered at his island camp were his dinner guests; he called them his "familiars." Certain animals became ostensible spirit guides, full of ancient wisdom and mythic, ancestral knowledge.

Walter Inglis Anderson, Herschel (detail), from the Ocean Springs Community Center Murals, c. 1951-52. Collection of the City of Ocean Springs.

As a young man, Walter Anderson killed a sea turtle that had come on shore to lay her eggs. Later, he told his wife about this incident and wept with grief at his youthful mistake. Anderson kept the turtle’s skull for the rest of his life – a reminder of the fragility of nature and man’s shortsightedness in destroying it.

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Walter Inglis Anderson, The Biloxi (detail), from the Ocean Springs Community Center Murals, c. 1951-52. Collection of the City of Ocean Springs.

LeAnne Howe discusses indigenous ritual and ceremony which used turtle shells and called forth "alligator power."

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TRANSCRIPT: Well, shell shakers wear turtle shells, and in the Southeastern culture, only women shake shells. Men do not shake shells. Women to not sing around the fire. Men call to the fire, call that power. So, the shells are also emblematic of the animal, the turtle, and taking that earth and getting in rhythm to dance, and to honor the ancestors. Many Southeastern tribes shake shells, women shake shells, and it becomes part of the dance. Interestingly enough, we also have a dance that is the Alligator Dance, and one of the reasons I think this is so powerful is because alligator represents a certain kind of power, that we tried to be in the relation and stand in good relations with that power. So, alligator is the way in which we made relations with other tribes, through alligator dance, alligator song, and of course, alligator also became food. They’re so incredible in the water. Bienville learned to follow the Choctaws, because when they would move, they’d move in this kind of alligator stance, and fight this way. And that was fascinating to me, because I’d never thought about it. That you would use the animal method to conquer or to combat an enemy that was coming in. I really learned a lot about how people lived in the 18th century and what they took and adapted from each other. It’s a fascinating, fascinating time in our history.

final thoughts

“One single image is inexhaustible—man is a wasteful fool.”
 
– WALTER INGLIS ANDERSON

Jack E. Davis closes by telling the story of how Walter Anderson helped him conceptualize his Pulitzer Prize-winning environmental history, The Gulf.

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TRANSCRIPT: I wrote Shell Shaker as an intervention, into Southern history and Southeastern culture. People would say things to me growing up, ‘Well, you’re just an Indian. And the best you can do, honey, is maybe you could be a teacher’s aide.’ So, I wrote it because I was reclaiming the powerful stories that my relatives – my uncles, my aunts, my mother – would tell about our history. But the one thing I did say, is that one of the character, Auda, says, ‘If she thinks I’m one of those perverse William Faulkner Indians, a mute character of the Southern literati, she has another thing coming.’ And I meant that. To pierce people who think, ‘Well, they didn’t have anything to offer, that’s why they had to be removed. They couldn’t even grow food for themselves.’ I have been told that in my lifetime. So, this book is one of those projects that took me ten years of research. It’s a love letter to our past, and as Faulkner would say, the past is never dead. It’s always with us.

Additional resources:

LeAnne Howe. Shell Shaker (2001), Aunt Lute Books.

 

Dunbar Rowland, A G Sanders, Patricia Kay Galloway, Mississippi Provincial Archives, 1701-1763: French Dominion.  (1927-©1984), Mississippi Department of Archives and History.